This is the 15th in our series of interviews with Sunshine Activists from around the country.
Our goal is to interview ordinary citizens who use open records at the state and local level to promote greater awareness of and insight into the local governance.
This week’s interview is with Ben Hansen who lives in the Traverse City, Michigan area. You may contact Ben via his website at the Bonkers Institute or by emailing him at drbonkers [at] gmail [dot] com. Ben has played a key role in uncovering issues with how psychiatric drugs are prescribed for Michigan’s school children. His work has been discussed in the New York Times, and elsewhere.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
- What documents were you looking for?
Michigan Dept. of Community Health records related to the Michigan Pharmacy Quality Improvement Project (PQIP), a program that analyzes Medicaid psychiatric drug prescribing patterns. The State of Michigan hired a private firm to implement PQIP with 100% funding provided by Eli Lilly.
- Did you get those documents?
I received a lot of records, including hand-written notes revealing that Eli Lilly’s sales staff utilized PQIP to expand the company’s share of the psychiatric drug market. I sent some of those records to the New York Times, which exposed the scandal on March 23, 2007 in a front-page story quoting me and citing the documents obtained through my FOIA request. But no, I didn’t get all the documents I requested. The State of Michigan provided reports showing the number of psychiatric drugs prescribed to any child under age 6, but refused to provide the names of those drugs. Likewise, data was provided showing the number of Medicaid patients on 5 or more psychiatric drugs, but not the names of the drugs. I filed a lawsuit to obtain this information, and more than a year later my case is still working its way through the courts.
- Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?
I had what you might call a FOI moment very recently, when I read a newly-published study in the Public Library of Science PLoS Journal, reporting that antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft actually work no better than placebo sugar pills. The authors of this study used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the data on which their research was based. Just another example of how vitally necessary sunshine laws are for everyone!
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
I’ve requested information from other states with Lilly-funded programs similar to Michigan’s, and it’s been quite interesting to see how differently each state has responded. Some are more helpful than others.
The Arkansas Dept. of Human Services informed me that all documents related to its program had been “destroyed.” I asked when these records were destroyed, and by whom. They replied, “We have researched our files and found no documents related to your request. We will now consider our response as final to your inquiry. Out-of-state entities are not subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.” Arkansas is the only state to tell me I needed to change my residence before they’d answer my questions!
The most obstructionist response I’ve received has been from my own state, Michigan. At first the Mich. Dept. of Community Health seemed to cooperate, but this changed after I filed my lawsuit in August 2006. I thought it would be a fairly simple matter for the court to decide my case one way or another, but the state has responded by digging in its heels with one legal delay after another. Even if I eventually succeed in winning my case, this will have dragged on for 3 years, if not longer.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
3 or 4 weeks, usually. In my experience, state agencies that charge little or nothing for FOIA requests are the ones who respond most promptly, while those who charge the highest fees are the slowest to respond.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
Half a dozen here in Michigan, and a couple dozen altogether in other states.
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
Through email bulletins and also my web site (bonkersinstitute.org). The local media wasn’t very interested until the New York Times quoted me in its front page story — then I suddenly gained credibility.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
If I lose my lawsuit, I’ll be liable for court costs amounting to several thousand dollars. The longer my case drags on, the higher those costs will be. Naturally this concerns me, but I’m not backing down because I believe public disclosure and public accountability are worth fighting for. I refuse to be intimidated by my foes.
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
This battle is not yet over, so it’s too early to speak of the final outcome. In the short run, I’m afraid the other side has become more secretive now that a spotlight has been pointed at them. Previously, Michigan’s PQIP committee always recorded the minutes of its meetings, but this abruptly stopped after I filed my lawsuit.
I naively believed the New York Times story would cause officials across the nation to begin questioning and challenging the pharmaceutical industry’s pervasive influence within government programs like Medicaid, but the national publicity has apparently resulted in a chilling effect instead. That’s how it looks right now, but perhaps the ultimate outcome will be very different.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
After the New York Times ran its story, the Northern Express newspaper reported on my work in a 3-part series that generated a lot of public discussion on the internet and in letters to the editor, both favorable and unfavorable.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Remain focused on your ultimate goal, and don’t expect instant success. Even if you stumble or face temporary setbacks, keep battling on. Your opponents want you to become discouraged, they want you to lose your patience, they want you to give up. Don’t give them what they want.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
Before going to the media, I probably should have waited a little longer and continued gathering more information first. Determining the best time to go public is a tricky decision. Media exposure is a double-edged sword that helps in some ways but hurts in others.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
Michigan’s law allows punitive damages if a public body arbitrarily and capriciously refuses or delays the disclosure of a public record. I’d change the wording from “arbitrarily AND capriciously” to “arbitrarily OR capriciously.” One little word can make a big difference.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
Until now, my activities have been limited to groups that oppose the psychiatric drug industry. I know at some point I ought to begin working with a larger coalition. There are a lot great organizations out there, and I salute WikiFOIA.com for being one of the best resources on the web.
Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
I’d love to hear from other activists here in Michigan and other states too — including Arkansas.
If you are interested in contacting Ben you may contact him via his website at the Bonkers Institute or by emailing him at drbonkers [at] gmail [dot] com.